The story of a musical genius, made at a crossroads one night.
Black road long and I drove and drove
I came upon a crossroad
The night was hot and black
I see Robert Johnson
With a ten dollar guitar strapped to his back
Lookin’ for a tune
Well here comes Lucifer
With his canon law
And a hundred black babies runnin’ from his genocidal jaw
He got the real killer groove
Robert Johnson and the devil man
Don’t know who’s gonna rip off who.
Nick Cave – Higgs Boson Blues
The story of Robert Johnson is vague. It is built on rumors, half-truths, fading memories and flat-out lies. It is the story of a black musician in white-supremacist America. It is the story of Delta Blues. It is a story fueled with envy, hatred, passion, genius and awe. But above all, it is a story of inner and outer demons.
Born 1911 in Hazelhurst, Mississippi to relatively prosperous parents, Robert Johnson was a calm and shy young boy, noted for playing the harmonica and the jaw harp, just like so many other African Americans of the time. The boy had a keen interest in music and the strong determination to one day become more than that. In the American South, there were only so many things that a young black adult was able to do and being a musician was one of them. After Johnson married his first wife, Virginia Travis, at the age of 18 – she was 16 at the time – he became more and more determined to turn his passion for music into their means of livelihood. His young wife and her parents were shocked that an educated black man like Johnson would not use his good fortune and favorable position to strive for a reputable job. When Virginia died during childbirth, shortly after their wedding, relatives of the young girl interpreted her death as a divine punishment for Johnson’s decision to choose his music career over a settled life as family father and for singing non-religious songs. Doing so amounted to selling his soul to the devil, they thought. But to young Robert, the loss meant that he only had one love left in his life: music.
In 1930, legendary blues guitarist Son House came to the Mississippi delta. Johnson went to see him perform and was taken aback by the raw energy and the power of Son’s music. Son played music that had more to it than rhythm: he played songs that expressed the harsh living conditions and the daily struggles the suppressed black community faced in this part of the United States. Johnson realized, that he could not express these emotions with the harp or the harmonica, but that the guitar was the musical instrument most apt to set his feelings to a tune. Not long after, Johnson began traveling around his hometown Robinsonville with a cheap guitar strapped to his back. But unfortunately, as Son House recalled in interviews about the young Johnson much later, he did not appear to be very talented on the 6-string instrument and would literally scare off audiences. “They would come out and say ‘Why don’t y’all go in there and get that guitar from that boy?’”, Son remembers.
A genius in the making
Making barely enough money to get by, Johnson left the scene around Robinsonville and relocated to the nearby town of Hazelhurst where he – a nobody – played in taverns, on street corners and during Saturday night dances. During one of these performances, he became acquainted with Isaiah “Ike” Zinnerman, a well-renowned blues guitarist who would change Johnson’s life.
As with most of Johnson’s life story, the details surrounding their first encounter and their following meetings are vague at best. Most accounts were passed on over generations, from mouth to mouth, but were never properly documented or verified. What we know today, is that Zinnerman was famous not only for his guitar skills but also the way he acquired them. Rumor had it, that Zinnerman learned to play the guitar supernaturally, by visiting local cemeteries at night and strumming tunes on top of graveyards. Most chroniclers of Johnson’s life are positive, that Zinnerman was Johnson’s tutor and helped him to perfect his playing. How he did that, remains a topic of much speculation and the source of the myth that became almost synonymous with Robert Johnson himself: his deal with the devil.
There are many accounts of a dark night – some place it in a hot summer, others in a stormy winter – in which Robert Johnson went to a crossroads, the precise location of which is still widely debated, to meet a tall, dark man who would wait for him at midnight to tune his guitar and thereby bestow upon him superhuman guitar skills in return for his soul. The first one of these accounts goes back to Tommy Johnson, potentially a distant cousin of Robert and a Delta blues musician himself. Apparently Zinnerman also made a pact with the devil and told an ambitious Robert Johnson that this was the only way he could master the instrument like his role models Son House and Willie Brown did. Other accounts claim that Johnson heard of the deal after one of his gigs. Most of the accounts, however, lack precision or conflict with others. The only indisputable thing is that something happened in Hazelhurst. That when Robert Johnson returned to his hometown Robinsonville, shortly after having left as an embarrassingly untalented guitarist, he returned as the musician that would later become the unrivaled king of delta blues.
Johnson’s guitar playing had improved so drastically over such a short time that many of his contemporaries thought black magic or some other supernatural power was at work. To musicians like Son House, it seemed abnormal that the guy they had laughed about only two years ago would now outplay them. Johnson’s hard-drinking and womanizing lifestyle, paired with his dirty-sounding and energetic music, further boosted his reputation as a musical daredevil. His play was too perfect, too different, to be man-made. Even decades later, musicians listening to his recordings would marvel in awe at his skills. Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards famously asked “Who’s the second guy playing?” when he first listened to the king of delta blues, disbelieving that one man could play both chords and riffs like Johnson did. At the time, the idea, that pure ambition and discipline were Johnson’s formula for success, seemed preposterous. There had to be more.
A devilish pact
The history books are filled with stories of people making deals with the devil and trading in their soul for power, money or success. Goethe’s Faust is likely the most prominent example but by no means the only one. It was rumored that the mother of the Italian violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini sold her son’s soul to the devil in order for her son to become the world’s greatest violin player. Throughout Europe, there are many bridges that became known as “devil bridges” because people during the Middle Ages considered such constructions to be beyond human capabilities. It seems that in most cases when devil’s help has been added to a story, it was for human disbelief in human talent or achievement. The things that are too perfect, too flawless to be true, that almost exceed our imagination, are explained by the intervention of a product of our imagination: the dark lord. Religious beliefs tell us, that things have a god-given order. Religion tells us what is possible and what is not. Often, pious, bible-loving people do believe in the miracles of scripture, but consider man-made miracles simply implausible.
Especially in music, religious beliefs have a tradition of discrediting or accusing everything that does not appear to be in line with the imagined harmony of the universe. For example: during the Middle Ages, the tritone between C and F sharp became known as “diabolus in musica” (the devil in music). This tritone – a musical interval composed of three adjacent whole tones, sounded dissonant and was believed to summon the devil if played out loud. Centuries later, the tritone would become known as “the blue note” – a fundamental part of the “devilish” Jazz and Bebop of the 1940s.
In the case of Robert Johnson, as with Paganini, it’s fair to say that jealousy and malevolence lie at the heart of the devil legend. It was easier to believe that Johnson had acquired his skills by cheating rather than through talent. Johnson would travel the Mississippi delta, that wedge of land bordered by the waters of the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers, and a stronghold of Southern white supremacy, for the rest of his career as an itinerant musician, recording his landmark album King of the Delta Blues Singers that would secure him his status as musical genius decades later, when guitarists in the 1960s re-discovered his work and let themselves be influenced by it.
On August 16th 1938, aged just 27, Johnson died in Greenwood, Mississippi. The exact circumstances leading to his death remain as mysterious as the man himself. Some accounts have it, that he was stabbed by a jealous husband of a white woman that Johnson had been flirting with. Another version of the events has it that the husband poisoned him. Typical for his times, Johnson was buried in a homemade coffin provided by the county and laid to rest in an unknown grave. What remains is his music, which inspired so many later generations of musicians, and the myth of a man willing to do everything to achieve his life goals.
In Me and the Devil Blues, one of Johnson’s most famous songs, he sings: “Me and the Devil was walking side by side”. Maybe they still are – somewhere at a crossroads, somewhere in the Mississippi Delta.